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Avoiding Common Traps of Product Building

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Years of working with companies in various stages of maturity has taught us a lot about how businesses push their products forward. Regardless of the business model and methodologies, there's a common trap I see many clients fall victim to: building for where you see yourself, and not for where you are.

Regardless of what stage your business is in, you always want to build for the future: to save yourself from tomorrow's pain by making the right decisions today. This kind of thinking is ingrained in our brains from a young age. "He who fails to plan, plans to fail", after all.

Wouldn’t it be great to predict the future needs and wants of your customers and provide solutions before they ever becomes a pain point? Of course it would! The problem is that none of us have been given the gift of clairvoyance, so we're relegated to making the most informed and educated guesses we can. While we may hit on some ideas, there are bound to be misses as well. Depending on how successful your business is, the cost of these misses can either be absorbed, a mild inconvenience, painful, or damning.

Let’s look at traps from the perspective of a few different business maturity stages: ​

Pre-Launch Startup

This is the stage where I believe you need to be most disciplined in defining the scope of what you want to bring to market. Whether you need an idea built or you're actively building it, the shape of your product is still starting to form. During this phase you should have identified your market, identified how you will provide value to that market, scoped out the competition, and narrowed your product down to the bare essentials you’ll need to fulfill that value proposition to your future customers.

Stay The Course

​ Where I see people falter is staying the course with the core decisions that were made about the product. Too many times the need to match the competition feature-for-feature causes the project’s timeline to balloon past where it needs to be. Competition is healthy—it proves your market exists, after all—but trying to match a successful business with more existing manpower and revenue is a losing proposition. Identify what makes you different and let that inform your decisions. ​

Learn, Don't Guess

​ Another danger is the attempt to predict what people will want from your product. We often hear people say "I know my users are going to want this" or "my customers won’t use my product without X", etc. It’s easy to sit around a table and come up with features, but the hard part is figuring out which ones to actually include in the product.

A better exercise is to determine how to reach your market. Once you have people using the system, how can you best engage them to learn which features they actually want? At this stage, the trick is getting to market and then engaging your customers to let them drive the shape of your application moving forward, so that the decisions you make are informed ones and not hypotheticals.

Post-Launch Startup

Congratulations—you’ve launched! You have traffic (and all of the glorious support requests that come with it), and you may even have investors (and all of the accountability that comes with them). In either case, you now have a sample you can utilize to gather data and help inform your decisions. The danger you run into here is trying to do all of the things at once. Everyone has an opinion and most aren’t afraid to speak it, but it's important to remember that negativity is a much greater feedback motivator than contentedness—your unhappy users are inevitably going to be the loudest.

Staying Focused

Your gut reaction to feedback will probably be to try and remediate whatever concerns you've received. Unfortunately, responding to every request with a feature will quickly add up, and as a result, your much larger business-focused initiatives will be pushed further into the future.

So you need to be disciplined in choosing which features get in and which are left out—what can people live with, and what will cost you users. The big picture must always drive your decisions. Sure, not having X feature now may cost you users in the near term, but if analytics and research tell you that finishing your bigger feature set instead will introduce even more new users to the system, then you need to stay focused.

Look, we understand: your product is your baby, and you probably feel a deep sense of responsibility to it. You feel like with all the blood, sweat, tears, and dollars you’ve invested in it, everyone who uses it should be in love with it—but that will just never be the case for every user, and it's extremely important that you thicken your skin and avoid having a knee-jerk reaction to every bit of negative feedback you receive.

Don't Over-Pivot

Depending on the success of your launch, you may or may not be realizing that users are not flocking to your product the way you had anticipated. You may even be second-guessing your business model, and might even be feeling the need to pivot.

There’s nothing wrong with pivoting—it’s saved more startups than I can count—but it’s important not to become a serial pivoter. If you’ve just recently gone to market and you’re not getting the traction you anticipated, rather than investing in large functional changes to your product, you might see better results investing that capitol in a more extensive marketing strategy. Reach out to bloggers and ProductHunt, invest in AdWords, banners, social media, your existing email list, etc. Trust in the decisions you’ve made up until this point, and invest in reaching your market, not changing it.

Stable User Base

If you're the proud owner of a successful Web business, the name of the game is growth. Luckily, you’ve got a tech team able to deliver, and a product team deeply in tune with your users' needs. You can afford to swing for some home runs and strike out every once in a while. What you should be focusing on at this stage of the game is not necessarily which features get in and which features are left out, as you should have metrics to support these decisions. Instead, your focus now should be on ensuring efficiency across your team. Are product and development communicating in a healthy way? Is design setting up development for success? Is design being given the direction they need?

Getting multiple teams to collaborate in a way that ensures ever-increasing efficiency is different for every company. In many cases a process needs to be tailored to fit the company, rather than a company adopting a methodology and attempting to force a square peg into a round hole.

Piles of books have been written on all of the different ways in which you can organize a software organization, but I’ve always found it most useful to identify a mentor and lean on them for advice. Find people who have been there and done that, and look to them for guidance. Avoid spinning your wheels on solved problems—while your situation may be unique, chances are someone you respect has experienced something similar, and you can utilize that knowledge to your benefit.

A lot of this information may appear to be common sense, but it’s amazing how fast common sense can go out the window once you’re under pressure. It’s vitally important that no matter what stage your business is in, you remain disciplined in your decision-making, and whenever possible, always rely on concrete data to inform your decisions. Understand where you are as a business, the cost of every feature you add, and the risk/reward associated with that cost to ensure a bright future.

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